The Fresh Loaf

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A Dozen Beginner's Problems in One Recipe!

Errans86's picture

A Dozen Beginner's Problems in One Recipe!

Hi folks, 

Newbie baker here, been lurking for a while and just encountered a problem that I think I can learn a lot from if someone just tells me what exactly went wrong. Which is going to be tricky, since I think the answer is about a dozen things. I've had a handful of successes so far and only three failures, but this latest one captured every issue I've had and rolled them all up into one. 

In case anyone out there is familiar, I was trying a recipe from Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Breads for "Pain de Campagne Poilane." Below, I'll outline the steps in the recipe and what I think went wrong/my question(s):

1) Make a starter w/ 1 cup whole wheat flour, 1 cup nonfat dry milk, 2 packages dry yeast, and 1 cup hot water. Cover tightly w/ plastic wrap and let sit for 1 day. 

  • Problem: starter more than trebeled in size, so I had to transfer it to a stainless steel bowl part way through (the only bowl big enough to contain it)

2) Make a sponge by adding 2 cups hot water, 3 cups all-purpose flour. Let sit for 1 day. (I had no problems with this part)

3) Acquire 3 cups of flour (3 pts all-purpose, 1 pt bread). Mix 1 Tbsp salt into your sponge and then, 1/2 cup at a time, add the flour. "When the dough becomes dense and difficult to stir, work in the flour with yoru hands... While this is an elastic, soft dough, sufficient flour must be worked into the mass to enable the shaped loaves to rest on the baking sheets without slumping..." This is where my problems really began.

  • After only adding about 1 cup of flour, the dough wasn't taking any more up no matter how violently I stirred (and I'm a pretty strong guy). So I threw some flour on the table, dumped the dough, and started kneading. 
  • After about 3 minutes, the dough became sticky enough that it was like working with rubber cement, so I added another 1/2 cup. 5 minutes later, it was slightly sticky, i.e. a film had accumulated on my hands and if I left my hand on the dough for more than about 1 second, it would stick. Added more flour. 5 minutes later, it was back to where it was. Added more flour. 5 minutes later it was back where it was before in terms of stickiness. Kept kneading, hoping the stickiness would go away.
  • At this point, after about 30-35 minutes of kneading, I poked the ball. Indents remained, but sprung back somewhat. If I poked it too hard, I had a lump of dough stuck to my finger. Also tried the window pane test. Dough tore in half instantly without stretching much at all. Finally, the ball had a tendency to slump down to the counter. So I started adding handfuls of flour and kept kneading. 
  • I continued this process for another HALF HOUR. Eventually, exhausted and realizing how ridiculous this had gotten, I turned to the internet. Discovered that one reason the window pane test might not work is not enough water. And that, as a whole, slack dough is better than a "cannon ball." So... I started working water into the dough a bit at a time, as per Mr. Clayton's recommendation. Add water, knead, add water, knead... 
  • Eventually, I got a moderately sticky mess that would window pane for me. Given that it was now 1.5+ hours after I had started kneading, I decided to call it. Grease a bowl, let it rise in the oven with the oven light on for 1.5 hours. 

4) Punch down (a light fist to the center, let it deflate), split into three loaves. Form each into a ball. Let rise again for 2 hours covered with wax paper (I used parchment accidentally) on baking sheets (I don't have a banneton at this point)

5) Bake at 425 degrees F, 35-40 minutes. "Loaves are baked when a light golden brown and are hard and crusty when tapped with a forefinger." 

  • Curiously, unlike my past loaves, a dry skin had formed on all three
  • Brush tops with water, slash with a razor
  • Have the oven preheated with broiler pan in the bottom, right before baking add a cup of hot water to pan, spray tops of loaves, etc. to create moisture
  • I checked them at 25 minutes and discovered them a dark brown, rock hard to a tapping fingernail, so I took them out and let them cool on the metal stove (don't have a wire rack). I figured the smaller loaves (recipe was for one giant one) required less oven time.

After cooling, I cut one, anticipating the rich flavor of my first loaf of bread made with a starter. I barely had time to note that the crust had softened somewhat and that the bread was awfully dense and difficult to cut before a pungent odor assailed my nostrils. It smelled like alcohol. And I'm not talking a nice pale ale, I mean sharp, rubbing alcohol or cheap vodka. The bread tasted ok for about a second, but it was then followed by an intense, nasty aftertaste. The inside was moist, but very dense. 

So, thinking it was underdone somehow, I popped the two intact ones back in for 13 minutes, covering with aluminum foil to prevent more browning. Let cool. Cut into the next largest and... same smell, only this time the inside was much dryer. I let the loaves sit overnight, thinking maybe somehow they'd offgas, but the next day they were just as bad. They wound up feeding the birds and squirrels. 

Now I have come to the community for forensic analysis in the hopes of preventing such a fiasco from occurring again. I'm sure there were quite a few mistakes I made in this whole mess, but my biggest difficulty is related to hydration. Did I add too much flour? At what point should I ignore the recipe and go by feel? How do you define "sticky?" How do I add more flour before kneading when the dough just kind of sticks to the spoon in a giant ball and swirls around the bowl without picking more up? And how, how, how do I tell when I'm done kneading? What if some of the tests contradict one another (e.g. window pane vs. stick-to-hand vs. poke the ball vs. slumping)? 

Please help me put this disaster behind me. I'm sure I made enough mistakes that the larger beginner community could benefit too. 

cranbo's picture

First of all, don't panic. 

Second, I think you may have tackled a slightly more difficult recipe than you are ready for. But don't panic :)

Third, this recipe (I think it's the same as this one here) is pretty poorly written for a beginner, because it essentially says "after you mix the dough, add your flour, but you're going to need to add enough so that it's not sticky." That's always lousy for beginners. There are better beginners' recipes here on TFL.

Let's dissect the recipe & formula. FYI, it's easier to dissect a recipe that's in grams. My calculations will assume 130g per cup of flour, 236g per cup of water.

Starter (~181% hydration, very runny):
1 cup fine or stone-ground whole wheat flour - 130g
1 tablespoon nonfat dry milk - 7.5g
2 packages dry yeast - 14.2g
1 cup hot water (120-130F degrees) - 236g

Sponge (121% hydration, somewhat runny batter-like):
All of the starter
2 cups hot water (120-130F degrees) - 472g
3 cups bread or all-purpose flour - 390g

Final Dough:
All of the sponge
1 tablespoon salt - 21g
3 cups all-purpose/bread flour - 390g

Totalling all the flours in your recipe, you get 910g.
Totalling all the water in your recipe, you get 708g.
water / flour = 708g / 910g = .778, or 77.8% hydration.

Any dough whose hydration is over 70% will be extremely wet, sticky, and very difficult (if not impossible) for a beginner to knead and work with. (the exception to this "rule" is formulas that use whole wheat (WW) for the entire flour, as WW absorbs more water than all-purpose or bread flour). 

If you want to do this recipe again, here are some recommended changes:

1. For your overnight starter, reduce the yeast to just a pinch (or 1/8 tsp max)! Really no need to use more than that; otherwise it's just going to overferment your "starter".

2. Add 1 cup additional flour to your final dough (to make it 4 cups in your final dough). This should put the dough hydration at closer to 68%, which will be much more manageable, and you will find it MUCH easier to knead.

3. The first time, let the dough rise until it just doubles, no more, no less. This can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours; watch the dough carefully (not the clock), and let the dough tell you when it has doubled.

4. When you divide your dough for shaping split it into more than 2 loaves (each loaf would be around 800g). Part of your issue was I think you may have over-baked for your loaf size. 35-40 minutes is good for 800g loaf, for less it might be too much. 

5. Best to let your shaped dough rise in some kind of container (a pot or basket with a floured towel will do nicely); as a beginner it's tough to tell when a free-form loaf has risen to nearly double. Learn to use the "poke test" to check when the dough is finally risen & ready to bake. 

The alcohol taste had to do with your bread over-fermenting. The gummy, undercooked taste could also be related to that, or underbaking. The dense texture is also related overfermenting, as well as the fact that you probably added too much flour.

Keep with it, you'll improve. Take some photos of your results and post them too!

Errans86's picture

Wow, quick reply. Thanks for that. 

What puzzles me is that the dough was no longer super wet and sticky by the time I had added about 2 cups of flour to the sponge, and as I worked more in, I was really fighting the dough to incorporate it. I guess what I'm wondering is how sticky is "sticky?" Should I just blindly add the flour called for in the recipe, or should I try to gauge the dough's consistency by feel to determine when I've added enough flour? I spent about an hour adding flour, kneading, adding flour, kneading, trying to reach the "good" consistency I've read about in a variety of articles: "silky and elastic."

Also, I guess I'll have to get a kitchen scale if I'm going to keep doing lots of this... 

I'll definitely post pictures of my next attempt!

cranbo's picture

Yes, your dough will be very sticky and unmanageable after incorporating just 2 cups of the original 3 cups (or recommended 4 cups) of flour for your final dough. Yes, at 1/2 cup at a time you will struggle to incorporate it. 

I recommend putting your final dough ingredients all in a large bowl or bucket (all 3-4 cups of final flour at once with your sponge, etc.), mixing with your dominant hand while rotating the bowl with the other, until all the flour is incorporated, just until there are  no visible dry chunks.

Then cover the bowl/bucket and let this shaggy dough rest for 20-30 minutes. Then start kneading. It should be a lot easier to handle and knead the rested dough, and won't take as long to reach that "silky and elastic" quality you're going for. After 20-30 minutes of resting, it will be a lot less sticky.  


Errans86's picture

I just noticed that the "mixing" part of the recipe is estimated to take 20 minutes! I'm used to cookies, quick breads, etc. in which the dry ingredients get taken up by the batter/dough immediately. The mix/rotate method sounds like it will be a much better method of incorporating the flour into the dough, which is too dense to be handled by a spoon at that point. And letting it rest will hopefully let the moisture redistribute itself better. Thank you for all the advice! I'll let you know how it goes next time. 

bunnieluv's picture

I had the same thing happen a few times to me.  Always around Easter time, everytime I had forgotten it had happend to me before to I freaked out. I remember that I was always using a differenent flour than my normal and (with the exception of one time) I was baking at a girlfriend's house. I don't use "bread flour" and I remember that this happened with a large complicated batch, in the Spring with bread flour. It could be just a sneaky recipe or because the weather is changing all day long and is not constant at all extra humidity etc the windows might have been opened..  It might have caused you the trauma. You got some excellent advice, and no matter what... you can't really sucessfully force dough to take in more anything quickly. It has to have a short turn ( as was mentioned) then it has to what I call "Jabba the Hut" that is it kind of has to relax and spread out in to a big sticky blob, slowly redistributing moisture through the dough and pulling in moisture from the enivoment.  Happens to the best bakers!! No worries, I have baked for 30 years and I would never be so patient ( now) to monkey around with the kind of recipe that you are.  Don't give up, you still have cooked doughs and nit picky French recipes to tackle... AND GET THEE A SCALE... look around the same scale can vary in price DRASTICALLY from one store to the next.  I have two dig scales, one max 8 lbs one max 12 and they convert to euro measurements to further confuse, but my bread was somehow slightly more perfect when I started using the scales and not cups. :)

Errans86's picture

Funnily enough, it has been raining the last few days here in Chicago... I haven't had the windows open, but this house is pretty old, and might not have the best weatherproofing... I'll make sure to grab a hygrometer while I'm getting myself a scale. :)